Mark Lamster | Essays

The Greatest Building in New York

What's the greatest building in the five boroughs? That was the question posed to a roundtable of architectural heavyweights by New York Magazine, and the discussion got off to a chippy start when moderator Justin Davidson asked the panel what makes a New York building good. Bernard Tschumi:
Before 2000, everything was about being contextual, and buildings were supposed to be good citizens. And when somebody from out of town asked me what new architecture to see, I had a hard time giving them an answer. Now I can tell them about all these exciting new buildings that break the pattern and don’t play the typical New York game of the podium with the tower on top. So suddenly we have buildings that no developer in their right mind would build — but they did.
This didn't sit too well with Bob Stern: 
Well, the buildings that entertain Bernard’s friends, who jet in from wherever, don’t really make any contribution except as big art objects. The city can take them, but what are they telling us? They don’t offer any new insights about how people live, or about the relationship to the street or to the sky. Just a new curtain wall, and a strange one at that. To be a good citizen is to work with the city and not against it.
Greg Pasquarelli, of SHOP architects and a voice of a younger generation, weighed in with a defense of Tschumi's architecture-as-art position:
I disagree. Like other kinds of art, great buildings contradict everything else. They make us think. They start conversations, so people talk about what it means to fit in, what it means to have courage. It’s okay for some buildings not to work.
I like to think buildings should start conversations, but I also think buildings should work—I'm not sure why this should ever be a zero-sum scenario, and the two buildings that the esteemed group latched onto as the best in the city prove the point: Grand Central Terminal and the Whitney Museum. (Seagram and the ESB also got some love). Grand Central took the crown, and no argument, though I'd put in a vote, as well, for the NYPL, and perhaps a ballot for Cooper's Foundation Building

It's worth noting, on the subject of the Whitney, that last week, in the same magazine, Justin Davidson floated the idea, proposed by Stern, of transforming Breuer's Whitney building, once the Whitney departs, into an architectural museum. I'm not sure a new architecture museum for the city is realistic—thought it would be great—and certainly the space would be perfect for it. Another option, why not make it a new home for MoMA's Architecture and Design Department. Although I'm sure PJ would cringe at the prospect of his department in a Breuer building (the two men had a troubled relationship), it's a perfect venue, and there's no one who knows the architect or the building better than Barry Bergdoll. Solved!

Your favorite NYC building? Should we even count Central Park in these conversations?

Comments [27]

The Barclay-Vesey building - Ralph Walker, 1923

I could look at this building all day - the angles and play of light and dark create an ever-changing display. If you look at it from certain angles, it looks flat! Le Corbusier loved this building, even though it's highly ornamented - that tells you something.... and the ornamentation is spectacular as well.

Mine has to be Mies's Seagram Building on Park Avenue. For all the obvious reasons. It's a building that is not rivalled anywhere.
Brian Minards

I know this isn't the answer you're looking for, but when I think of every one of my "favorite" buildings in NYC I tend to frame them in reference to a photograph, movie scene, pencil sharpener I got in lower school, et cetera.

Is it even possible to think of a building in isolation of its surroundings? Yeah—pieces of it. But architects need to remember...to paraphrase...no building is an island of its own.

So, my favorite building? That gorgeous, heart-stopping "building" that I see heading into NYC from the Long Island Expressway that stretches from Battery Park to Harlem.

Andy Jacobson

Mine is probably a little trite, but the fascade of the Chrysler building can't be beat.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral
Its certainly too small to influence NY's relationship to the street or to the sky buts its majestic from a pedestrian's point of view.

It doesn't have the luxury of standing tall and lonely like a skyscraper. It has to be surrounded by the streets and all the commercial visual pollution surrounding the area. Regardless of anyone's religious associations, stepping up to St. Patrick's and entering it is the most transformative architectural experience in the city.

Its part Narnian wardrobe part Time Machine.

Eagle warehouse in Brooklyn has always been a favorite of mine.

First saw it while looking for a rave under the brooklyn bridge around 1997 when Dumbo still looked like the metropolis that time forgot.

I have always loved the Flatiron Building on 5th Ave. Creative design, beautiful architecture...

Seagram Building

The new Cooper Union by morphosis captures the energy of the City and reflects it back.

The Ford Foundation Building, by Kevin Roche, between 42 and 43rd Streets, is my favorite. Completed in 1965, it presaged numerous similar projects with civic garden/courts across the country.

The Ford Foundation Building.
Robert Fraser

The Empire State Building. Iconic NYC. Have we seen it so long we've stopped looking?
Richard Peck

The best skyscraper, the RCA, errr, the GE tower.
Best non-skyscraper? How about the Guggenheim.

These "best this and best that" things really annoy me.

And the little bit of the conversation shown here sounds like Bill O'Reilley with guests he doesn't like or it like fourth year architecture students. Very very lame.

How about a list of the 100 most wonderful buildings in Manhattan ?
Jeffrey Smith

Of course, Grand Central Terminal....http://philiptusa.blogspot.com/2008/08/grand-central-racquetball-club.html
Philip Tusa, Architect

Mr. Downer generally tries to avoid positive reinforcement, but, if I had to pick a single building (rather than the glorious, wildly interconnected, overlapping, sex & money fueled mechanical organism that is the City), I will admit:

The Ford Foundation

I think it suffers a bit from its site (a little out of the way) but, as a Diagram of a Way Forward in a dense urban setting, as a way of taking the monumental strength of masonry, the lightness (in every sense) of curtain wall, the gravity of serious architecture, and the device of atrium that has been butchered in so many other hands (sorry Mr. Trump) it is magnificent.

If I am stuck in a project, looking for inspiration, or otherwise just seeking the exotic, I visit the building. It has deep lessons for everyone, some obvious, some that require patience, time and seasons to reveal... and dammit, as I think about it, I'm going to visit it in the blizzard tomorrow morning.

Long live NYC, the greatest Architectural creation the world has ever known.

Mr. Downer

Grand Central Terminal


Grand Central Terminal (but I’m prejudiced). When built it embodied new directions in urban growth, groundbreaking (literally) new technologies in rail service, new applications of style, and sustainable spaces that have served, and continue to serve new generations. Besides which, it helps that the building is popular, “loveable”, and define the timelessness of a true landmark.
James W. Rhodes, FAIA

I used to live in Westchester County and upon arriving in Grand Central Station I always got excited. The expanse of the main area is amazing and you know you're in NYC once there. Then you look up and see the beautiful ceiling. I can probably spend a whole day there. Good choice!

Are we allowed buildings that have been lost to the demolition crew?
Anthony Veitch

My favorite building is the Guggenheim. Every time I go there, it is full of people taking photos of the building inside and out, because it's so famous.
Gayle Alstrom

It may be a controversial choice, but my favorite building in New York City is the Lafayette on 9th Street. At first glance it appears to be a simple apartment building, but if one takes a closer look its architectural influences are clear. It my opinion, this building has much more to offer than its more famous neighbors such as the Cooper Union.

Can I get some love for the McGraw-Hill Building?
Ken Weimar

The Ford Foundation Building is the most beautiful building in New York and one of the most prophetic. The two younger architects' personal and arbitrary criteria seems only applicable to their romantic , twentieth century vision of art--not to architecture. The mystery is how they agreed with Bob Stern on Grand Central!
lyman dunn

I'd have to go with Lever House. As much as I love Mies, SOM's building across from the Seagram beats it. Second favorite would be the Flatiron or the Guggenheim.
Brian Libby

I would go with the Lever House. The Lever House is not a "grand" building but it is a wonderful piece of design. Grand Central is on the list but I always have the old Pennsylvania Station in the back of my mind. If Pennsylvania Station was still standing I don't think Grand Central would compete.
Stephen Bluto

I loved the building I lived in at 42 Strong Place in Brooklyn, a crumbling brownstone next to a carriage house (that once housed hearses) with an empty lot in front of it that allowed my building to breath. Many of my neighbors had been born onto the block and knew myriad details of its history, from who lived where to (literally) where the bodies were buried. Sometimes context *is* everything.
Bonnie Schwartz

Jobs | April 12